Do Newspapers Get It?

I recently responded to this question posed by one of our members. I’m posting it here too. I was responding to a post that newspapers aren’t embracing new technology quickly enough to stay relevant in the digital age.

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I think “quality control” is the operative phrase when it comes to newspapers allowing users to submit photos, videos, reviews and other bits of information on news websites. If you troll the comments on news websites, those that aren’t moderated can degenerate quickly.

For decades, newspapers have become used to being held legally liable for content in their product. Newspapers have spent precious sums of money defending the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. Papers also have spent money defending against claims of libel. So I think one reason that newspapers have been cautious about letting users post content to their sites is out of an abundance of caution about liability and care for the quality in the editorial information they’re responsible for publishing.

As you pointed out, you can go to craigslist, Monster.com, and Google News to get information. Who needs newspapers?

The answer is, we all do. Where do people think Google News gets its stories from? They come from brick-and-mortar newsrooms, often newspapers. Do people think those photos from Iraq or Sudan were taken by Google staff? They were taken by photojournalists working for news wires, the largest of which began as a co-op of newspapers. If you watch television news or listen to radio, where do they get their news? Truth is, they often obtain it from newspapers and then go out into the field to capture the visuals or audio they need to tell the story to their audiences. The entire mainstream media architecture is built on the local newspaper as the basic unit at the base of the food chain.

What far too many people don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge is that strong local reporting is expensive, unprofitable, inefficient and time-consuming. Yes, you can get news anywhere now, and anyone with a Web site can hang a proverbial shingle and declare himself a publisher. I think the jury is still out on whether these self-styled publishers have the long-term commitment to public interest journalism. Will they flinch when an advertiser threatens to pull an ad? or when an irate person threatens to sue before an article goes to web?

To be sure, newspapers have lost some credibility and relevancy in this age of media fragmentation and cynicism about MSM. I’ve worked as a reporter for 12 years now, all of them in newspapers, and I can tell you that every reporter under the age of 40 is eager to see newspapers become more savvy technologically.

The problem isn’t really a lack of desire. It’s economics and the pace of technological change.

We’re losing money so fast we don’t have the capital we need to invest in new resources and new staff. And when you have limited resources, you’re wary of investing in a technology that hasn’t established itself yet.

We’re also being asked to publish on multiple electronic platforms, even as we maintain one of the most reliable distribution vehicles for information ever created (delivery to your doorstep). (When we had a windstorm here that knocked out power to over 1 million people, they couldn’t get the news online. They had to listen for it on the radio or read the newspaper.) Most newspaper staff aren’t trained to also be TV producers. We’re all trying to define multimedia and strike a balance.

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